Monday, September 30, 2013

Ramayana in miniature retelling — good vs evil epic in colours of heritage


By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi 

The legend of the life King Rama of Ayodhya in Madhya Bharat (middle India) and his battle against Ravana, the mythical demon-king of Lanka (Sri Lanka), an emerald isle in the southern tip of the country has been one of the most popular muse of traditional Indian painters since 4-5th century BCE, when the epic was believed to have been conceived by the seer-poet Valmiki – as a fable of good versus evil to preach the importance of goodness and governance in the early princely societies.       

The text in Sanskrit that comprises nearly 24,000 shlokas (verse-couplets) divided into seven cantos with hundreds of revisions and interpretations has been documented in pictorial anthologies and standalone paintings by indigenous miniaturists in their ethnic traditions — transposing the events from the texts into local visual cultures. The Ramayana is interpreted differently by schools of miniaturists – who trace their aesthetic roots to the distinctive mythical-cultural lores, societies, geographical and anthropological contexts that have shaped their lifestyles and sensitivities.

A visual narrative, “Ram-Katha” at the National Museum in New Delhi portrays of the epic in colourful miniature traditions spanning 300 years between 15th to 18th century. The 101 original paintings – heritage art from the archives of the museum — are testimony to ancient India’s obsession with the legend and how it opened the creative canvases of the artists’ imagination to paint the events from the epic in vernacular idioms which were larger than life – and aesthetically stylized to perpetuate the aura of the scared that grew around the legend.

The protagonist of the epic, Lord Rama is deified as one of the incarnations of Vishnu— the divine keeper of living things in the Hindu pantheon and is worshipped as a god across India. The festival of lights – Diwali, the most glittering spiritual event on the Indian festival roster – is dedicated to Rama, who was said to have returned home to Ayodhya on Diwali after 14 years in exile in the forest – and after having defeated Ravana, who had abducted his queen Sita.

Legend says Rama, the king of Ayodhya, was exiled by his father Dasharath after the old king (Dashrath) was forced to concede to one of his wife’s whim to install her son to the throne instead of the rightful succession of Rama, the eldest, to his father’s kingship in a palace conspiracy. Dasaratha had four wives. 

The old king exiled Rama to the forest for 14 years. Rama was accompanied by wife Sita and brother Laxman to forests across India – where he fulfilled his karmic destiny by vanquishing the king of Lanka, Ravana, who abducted Sita to his island kingdom. The epic describes Ravana, a Brahman (erudite) king with magical powers and 10 heads as the evil personified while Rama is the symbol of goodness.

However, a version of the several retellings of the epic, Uttarakand Ramayana – carries the tale beyond Rama’s victory. The pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forests by Rama on suspicion that she was not chaste. She gives birth to twins, Luv and Kush. The queen eventually disappears into the earth - unable to live with the humiliation. She buries herself.           

The epic renders itself to the visual genre because of the numerous events with which it builds the narrative – like an army of apes who helped Ravana rescue his wife, the life of the exiled trio in the forsest, their encounters with mythical characters, magical beings from nature and the sages who retreated in the forests and the royal life at Ayodhya and Lanka.

The events in Rama’s life are portrayed in a variety of miniature traditions like the Pahadi styles of Basholi, Kangra, Guler, Chamba and Nurpur paintings – each standing out in its typical stylistic embellishments, use of colours and fantasy elements. The ornate hill miniatures that make liberal use of the hilly landscape as the background and the dense forest as the locale are almost European Renaissance-like in their use of iconic imagery. The undulating hills and the trees with each leaf painted in delicate relief and contoured shapes capture the dense landscape of the lower Himalayas (mountains). The figures are fluid, beautiful, tall and fluid – drawing from the hill tribes who inhabit the outer Himalayas.  

History cites that several miniature painters from across central India, Delhi and Agra fled to the hills in the undivided Punjab region of India during the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s reign – who had put curbs on painting. The tradition flourished under patronage of the local kings, whose influence brought about a transformation in the thematic content of the miniature— from documentations of Mughal courts to Hindu mythological essays in colours.         

In contrast, the miniature traditions of desert state of Rajasthan in north-western India – represented by the princely Rajput royal genres from Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bundi, Mewar, Kota, Bikaner, Deogarh and Kishangarh are shining examples of commissioned court art. The paintings are ornamental — decked in resplendence brought on by the extensive use of gold pigments, floral iconography, elaborate attires, delicate figurative expositions and expressive body language of the characters that are rich, colourful and neon. Rama is shown as a king with flowing robes and a golden crown in the forest. Sita, Laxman and apes are honoured with miniature golden crowns as well in some of the art works.

The colours – though more than 300 years old- are as fresh as they were when extracted from natural substances. The central Indian miniatures – inspired by the court and temple art of Madhya Pradesh and the Islamic fiefs from Malwa, Orchha, Datia, Raghogarh, Bundelkhand and the Deccani from Bijapur are inspired by the Persian miniatures. They tell the epic in mosaic panels on paper like the Mughal miniature printings – almost like animated art in serials. But the iconography is subdued and refined unlike the Rajasthan miniatures. The Deccani tradition, however, digresses from the Islamic sobriety to paint in royal gold-tinted colours and floral baroque.

The commonly illustrated episode is the wedding of Rama to Sita — each in different styles typical of the region to which genre of the miniature tradition belongs.  The folio of Shangri in Himachal Pradesh shows a humble Rama and a blushing Sita circumbulating the ritual fire under a simple marquee – mandapa – like a couple in a village. The folio from Kangra in contrast puts the couple in a royal palace setting — depicting the royal wedding procession instead of the wedding rites. Miniature painting in Kangra flourished under the patronage o Raja Sansar Chand.

The two Bundeli folios from Bundelkhand region offer colourful insights into the Bundeli traditional weddings. In one of the paintings, Rama and Sita are seated on a throne to exchange garlands – a common Indian wedding rite across several provinces. In another, the royal groom arrives at father-in-law king Janaka’s palace for the “kunwara-kaleva”- a rite in which the bride’s women friends honour the groom. Another episode interpreted frequently by miniature painters is Rama’s “experiences” in the forest.

The history of miniature painting has its genesis in author and sage Vatsyayan’s “six limbs of Indian painting” that he elaborated on in 3rd century AD. The six principles exhorts “Rupabheda- knowledge of appearances, Pramanam —correct perception, Bhava- feelings, Lavanya Yojanam —grace and Sadrisyam – resemblance and Vamikabhanga – use of brush and colours”.          
The tradition – in small frames and dense compositions — evolved around the10th century AD in Rajasthan and the adjoining areas as manuscript illustrations. They were painted manually in hand written books of the Jain and Vaishnav sects.   

The showcase will travel to Brussels Oct 5 from New Delhi.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Travelling through India's Northeast with lensman Pablo Bartholomew


Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi 

The camera lenses are transforming in arty Indies.  The notion of still photography in India even till a decade ago was confined to family photo albums and journalistic media footage that gave it archival worth as works of “documentation for posterity”.

But the gradual globalization of the tradition-backed universe of Indian modern and contemporary  art– with its new age trade and aesthetic equations — is pushing photographers to explore new creative frontiers through their lens. Photography is finding growing acceptance- if slow – in the mainstream genre of Indian art as collectibles of aesthetic value worthy of display and dissemination by critics.   

“The problem with photography in finding recognition as art in India lies in the fact that art is still seen as drawing a line. Different people have different perspectives to art and the level of acceptance depends on the audience. But a marked change is that Indian viewers are being able to read art better. They had not been read well earlier,” says leading Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew, winner of the India’s highest civilian Padmashri award and two World Press Photo awards— one on morphine addicts and another of a dead child at the Bhopal Gas Tragedy which became an iconic symbol of the catastrophic gas leak.

Mapping the level of response to photographs in India in the last three decades,  Bartholomew  says in the 1970s and 1980s, photographs were mostly media appropriations that Indians responded to with “degrees of seriousness— more like subjects of current affairs”. But the1990s brought an opening up of the mental and creative horizons of the camera. Photography became “something beyond the media”. “People looked at photographs in different contexts –as narratives and visual documents of aesthetic value,” Bartholomew expounded. In was in this milieu of greater understanding of photographs in India that the genre spread its canvas of visualization to script photo essays – a series of multiple related images that tells a definite story.

Photo-essays have definite beginnings, middle and end, says Bartholomew  within which “there are key points”. Sometime, they go beyond story-telling to combine media appropriations, standalone images and digital interventions to create new idioms.

Bartholomew’s ongoing photography showcase, “Coded Elegance” (at the India International Centre) — a collection of nearly 70  photographs shot in the ethnic northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur tries to archive the lives of the remote ethnic groups and their unique social mores (their anthropological history) with standalone photographic narrative essays and standalone artistic frames.

The photographs shot over a period of 10 years between 1990s an early 2000 was inspired by one of his assignments in 1983 – when he chanced upon the turbulent and demographically eclectic and yet culturally rich Northeast. A photojournalist for 20 years, Bartholomew was commissioned by Time to document the horror of an ethnic massacre in Nellie at Assam where the ethnic groups had clashed with the settlers from the neighbouring nation of Bangladesh. Bartholomew, in course of covering the mayhem, discovered the richness of the region’s socio-culture and the conflicts in the societies battling diverging ethnicities, land disputes and clashing aspirations.

“It bred in me a curiosity,” Bartholomew said. The quest brought him back to the region – made of seven ethnic states in the country’s northeastern fringe bordering Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal (with direct access to China)  — a decade later — to shoot a series of short films.           

A photo-collage of traditional head-hunters and sacred ritual arts of the primitive Naga tribe come out of the primal spaces of another era – when cave rites dictated the passage of living ceremonies. In a series, a village headman (Ang- the spiritual head) in traditional attire and elaborate head-dress (with horns and feathers) shows off a sacred configuration of megaliths symbolizing fertility and rows of human heads culled by the head hunting Thendu Nagas of the Lower Konyak region ( in Mon district) of Nagaland. Each time, a head was taken, the village erected a “stone megalith” to commemorate the trophy.

Head-hunting in Nagaland was banned by the British in 1930, but the American Baptists had made the ritual and several other animist ceremonies a taboo in the late 19th century when they converted the Naga ethnic groups to Christianity. Many villagers hid the skulls hunted by their ancestors at home.

The photographs of the tribes from Nagaland have a “aesthetic” quality to them – rising from the mosaic of staid documentation to colourscopes of ornamented black, white and red — the basic Naga colours — morphing into shapes and histories against backgrounds of inky black and greens and grey. They are stark, horrifying and yet “strikingly” beautiful in their contrasts, portraying the two strains of Naga culture – the grisly aboriginal roots and modern western Christian sensibilities.

“The focus is on dress and rituals of the tribes,” Bartholomew says. The series is dedicated to his (late) associate, Prabuddha Dasgupta, who was one of India’s leading fashion photographer. “The challenge in the region was distance – in the map they seemed close but in real life inaccessible. I had to look at all the 36 Naga tribes,” the lensman replies when asked about the “odds”.

Headhunting is difficult to establish as a link to the region’s tangible cultural history, but “with time, the skull archives revealed themselves to the photographer”.

The Naga Project still remains an incomplete assignment for Bartholomew. “I want to do a book,” he says. The Northeast diaries are “a gesture of appreciation for the hill tribes which his father Richard Bartholomew (a reputed photographer from the brood of the early pioneers and a chronicler) experienced first hand when he trekked to India as refugees from Burma (Myanmar) as boy”.

Pablo Bartholomew uses photographs as serial document evidence of social transformations in India’s culturally-diverse heartlands in artistic frames. He plays with light, shadow, colours, embellishments, icons and compositions like an artist for a visually rivetting effect. In one of his urban visual chronicles, Calcutta Diaries, Bartholomew captures the changing the Calcutta (Kolkata – a metropolis in eastern India with a rich colonial past) landscape where the old buildings are being pulled down to make room for contemporary concrete edifices.

The black and white frames probe the forlorn “colonial addresses in the city” including that of his own grandmother’s – and their forgotten facades. The photographer has a fetish for cities and their demographic evolution. In two other photo-essays, “Outside In: A Tale of Three Cities”, Bartholomew explores the heavy lidded - drug addicted lowlands (underbellies) of Delhi, Kolkata  and Mumbai in the 1970s while in “Chronicles of a Past Life”, Bartholomew immortalizes Bombay of the 1970s – its life, glamour and people- in his frames.

“But the project closest to my heart is the Diaspora Project”, the genial lensman says. Bartholomew has been documenting the “lives and slow integrations into foreign societies” of the Indian diaspora (migrants) around the world in photo-narratives. He has shot extensively in US, UK and Mauritius.

“I am looking for funds to go to Africa to shoot Indians,” the photographer says with a smile. “It is tough to generate resources for such large projects in a developing country like India”.       

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Artist Asim Waqif sets off contemporary against vernacular in mixed media art


By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Asim Waqif's mixed media works 

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Contemporary art in India is a mirror of urban realities and global concerns — painting the canvas with imagery in colours and structural forms that speak of stark truths — the nation of 1.2 billion contends with in its daily grind in the larger context of world issues.

The notion of contemporary in the history of Indian art is distinctive in the sense that it combines the local with the global, universal with the micro in a language of aesthetics that is essentially indigenous in soul but international in practice.

Young New Delhi-based architect-turned artist Asim Waqif blends the local concerns of the mindlessly-growing capital city and its drift away from the vernacular salt of the earth in his installations and mixed media art. He draws from a variety of western aesthetics genre like Dadaism, abstract expressionism, arte povera, surrealism, cubism and minimalism.

Waqif uses bamboo, coir, paper, recycled waste and photographic prints as his primary material for installations that explores issues related to ecology, town planning, kinetics and the mechanics of sound, light and digital aids in synergy with natural elements and ancient art traditions.  

In an exposition, “Disruptions” at the Nature Morte Gallery in the national capital (New Delhi), Waqif has used paper as a tactile medium to build a “pop-up” landscape of the capital— throwing the spotlight on the enormous urban decay that threatens to consume the capital’s current skyline.

Two installations, “Urban Ruins at Ashram Chowk 1 & 2”, capture the waste generated by the demolition drive that the civic authority in the national capital had unleashed on the encroached concrete spaces to rid the megapolis of its spatial bottlenecks and inhabited illegalities accumulating over the decades in violation of the city’s masterplan (that goes through a 20-year cycle). But the half-hearted nature of the drive – abandoned midway — left behind mountains of modern ruins of putrid builtscapes massed in empty highrises, sealed buildings, demolished homes, walls and plinths, strewn in ramshackle, eerie and ungainly mess around the capital.

Waqif uses this geopoloitical social situation as an inspiration to create a photographic wall shelf. The flat surface of the photographic wall is blown up to create three-dimensional contours of the city’s masterplan — that serves as the town planning template — and at the same time points to the distortions as well.  

Fold 1 ( at the showcase) is a  photo-effect plate that the artist has cut and fold to craft “Hazard”, a urban narrative of the manifolds of layered images that pile on one to suggest the blueprint of a de-constructed building — and advocate new and alternative use of them.

“I trained as an architect. I have studied experimental structures. Structures which have very good strength but the sameness in relief become heavy and boring,” says Waqif, explaining the necessity of feasible structural alternatives in art as well as in the layout of cities.

Waqif punctuates his solid city landscapes with video essays of life along the river Yamuna – the contaminated yet the sacred lifeline of the capital. The to-part art documentaries series, "Help", swivel the camera on people inhabiting the banks talk of sustenance in the lowlands — motley characters like Jagdish, a scavenger from Madhya Pradesh who ekes his meals from the trash thrown into the river.

While a floating installation made of plastic water bottles cries “HELP” on the surface of the river, Jagdish narrates his everyday treasure hunt in the dirty foaming waters that have thrown up a new laptop (which he sold at Rs 20,000) and Rs 100,000 worth jewelry for his daughter, Pooja, who goes to an “English school”. He rears Pooja and Rani – his pet monkey whom his dog had rescued from a dying brood — with the same zest. Man and animal cohabit in peace along the river. The bank of the river Yamuna is one of the capital’s favourite dumping sites that no amount of “government and private action” can clean.   

“It was difficult to make the documentaries,” Waqif said. … Money was the crunch. “But an advertising agency pulled him through,” the artist divulged.                                                
The artist sees the city as a vast urban jungle with “so many ruins”. Most of them the ruins are left to die as the city grows. They either disappear or are sucked into the race for fresh spaces and new urban milestones. “I document the ruins and throw them in a computer-controlled mechanical environment to corrupt the images to look into the playful aspects of decay,” Waqif says.

The result is distortion and new structural landscapes – where the ends merge into beginnings.

Two digital images “Acid on Free Paper 1 & 2” prints on archival paper worked with hammers and then covered with bubble wraps alk defacement and degradation. The artist says it is a critique of the art market  “where buyers are conscious about the money and the archival value of the work”. Waqif believes that the “residua memory of the object is more important than the object itself” and hence he uses a peel-off effect on the surface of the archival print to compare art  and decay. The array of odd articles used by the artist includes empty cigarette cases, sheep skin, wood panels from an old dining table and old metal scrap.    

The young artists – who has shown his works extensively in India and Asia- has been experimenting with bamboo as a vernacular medium for a long time. “I have been trying to explore the vernacular method of treating bamboo because it takes time to do the treatment. The bamboo stalks have to be of good quality to ensure long years,” Waqif says.

An installation, “Jaandaar Savaari, Shaandar Savaari” sets off a treated Rajdoot Excel T motorcycle of 1979 model inside a grove of treated bamboo. The two-wheeler, which belonged to the artist’s father, is an auto-biographical reference in a medium (bamboo grove) that is alien to the mechanical junk. The bamboo — connected to the mysticism and magical myths of the Nagaon district of Assam (Afoliyabori village) from where it comes to New Delhi — is a symbol of adventure for the modern biker to follow.

Another installation, “Besuri Baansuri”, in Jati bamboo turns a grove of treated bamboo stalks into a musical instrument with radio parts and speaker amplifiers. Modern technology is often propagated as the solution to an old problem – and this turn leads to the polarization between the old and the new,” Waqif says, explaining the contradictions in his work.

The traditional vernacular is contrasted against the new age digital in these two installations that juxtaposes bamboo with mechanics- India with the west, which is the pulse of the emerging idiom in Indian contemporary art today.          

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Longing, love and loss crafted Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore as a child, says psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar


By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

The grand monarch of modern Indian literature, Rabindranath Tagore, has been one of the most oft-visited muse for scholars, who  have  deliberated on his writing and art in somber treatises and cerebral commentaries.

But very few have tried to probe the mind of the icon behind the pen —which earned India its first Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for the poetry-lyrics anthology, “Gitanjali”.  A new and unique psycho-biography of the Nobel Laureate, “Young Tagore : Making of a Genius”,  describes Tagore as a sensitive wordsmith, who could hammer feelings into wreaths of verbiage and a pragmatist with a modern outlook of the world that was ahead of time.  

His world view combined an astute farsightedness and a profound spirituality that — unlike those who branded him as elitist — took the common in its stride. A romantic, he loved the world and all things beautiful, creative and new.

But the child “Rabi” that the poet was before he became the icon — was a conflicting mystery. He was lonely but a creative child in love with the natural bounty around him. His estrangement from his mother early in life — being the youngest in a brood of 14 — bred in him a longing for maternal care and a melancholy that honed his sensitivities. He was brought up by a posse of domestic help, far away from the women of the household who lived in the “andarmhal”- inner quarters.

Tagore, as a boy, spent time by himself – reflecting upon the world through the trivial events in his cloistered world. But his mother’s sudden demise at the age of 14 cast an indelible shadow on his life tempering his creative experiences with fine etchings of “pain”, “loss” and bewilderment that seeped into his fragile consciousness in misty details.

He describes Sarada Devi (his mother)’s passing away like a six-year-old— crushed and desolate. It heightened the strain of mysticism around young Rabi, weaning him away from worldly realities for a while.     

 “Tagore was a man of many dualities  — he was sensuous, spiritual and material at the same time. Exploring this duality makes his work so interesting. He was a milestone in the ongoing encounter between the east and the west. However, as a young man, he was unhappy who was hurting a lot,” says noted writer Sudhir Kakar, one of the country’s foremost psycho-analysts and social thinker.     
In his new psycho-biography (Kakar is known the world over for dissecting the minds of cross-sections of society including the greater Indian psyche in non-fictional accounts like the “Inner World: A Psycho-Analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India”, “Shamans, Mystics and Doctors”, “The Indian Psyche”) , the author has reconstructed the Nobel Laureate’s childhood  and youth — and has tried to tap into the secret pools of Tagore’s creative energy.

Two decisive experiences influenced the minds of young Rabi — the death of his mother and his infatuation for his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, the wife of his elder sibling Jyotorindranath Tagore. However, who was two years older than Rabi committed suicide after battling against chronic melancholia and depression.

The young poet’s journey to England at 17 was an intellectual and sensory watershed as well— bringing out the amiable extrovert in the lonely young man. ‘Tagore suddenly realized that he was good looking and was admired by the English ladies,” Kakar analyses. Tagore was taken up with the west inspired by its literature- especially poetry — and progressive ideas.

But as he grew up, Rabi retreated into a world of solitude  rather than isolation and alienation. Kakar describes this solitude as a state of being when the mind is peopled by beloved characters even away cut off from their company. This solitude bred introspection — in a rather Wordsworthian tradition encouraging creativity from sources of happy recollections.  As a result, bulk of his poetry is replete with deep philosophy, ruminations and sublime comments on the world and its cosmic connections at large.    

Kakar’s pre-occupation with Tagore began two years ago when the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) asked Kakar if he could comment on his paintings (a vocation that the poet began to pursue at the age of 60).

“That was when I began to know Tagore. I was mesmerized by his art and I began to read him,” Kakar said. As he delved deeper into Tagore, Kakar  began to plumb his “unexpected fathoms and probe the delicate nuances of his literary philosophy”. “I began to read his essays and realised that they could make a wonderful psychobiography,” the writer divulged, answering a query on how the seeds of “Tagore’s psychobiography” were sown.        

Kakar says Tagore’s sister-in-law fuelled his art. The long ovoid faces — sad and dark— with their wide-set eyes and straight black hair framing the visage like an Indian Madonna were those of Kadambari Devi. “But behind those eyes were the eyes of his mother,” Kakar observed.

He hated school because “his wild imagination bothered him”. The imagination  was the well-spring of his poetic activity as well — which the poet identified at the age of eight. When he came closer to his sister-in-law after the demise of his mother,  Rabi (Tagore) matured as a poet.

In a chapter, “Kadambari and the Smell of Buttered Toast”, (the chapter cues its name from the small of buttered toast in the Tagore household kitchen in Jorasanko every morning) Kakar says the “main actor in the inner theatre of Rabi’s adolescence  and early youth — playing a crucial role in the remembered happiness of those years and the consolidation of his identity as a poet and writer — was his sister in-law Kadambari Devi.  His first memory of Kadambari Devi is of a 10-year-old girl with thin gold bangles on her slender dark wrists.  He circled her from afar – afraid to come close.

Four years later, she emerged from her childhood sheltered in the women’s quarters – as a young woman — opening up closed dams of emotions in the poet’s young (12 year old) heart.
Tagore describes  his love-struck heart “like a breed of a grasshopper  that blends its hue with colour of the dry leaves” that had for so many years worn “ a faded tint’….

Kadambari Devi, an illiterate woman born to poor Pirali Brahmin (Pirali – a village in present-day Bangladesh) parents  employed in the Tagore home, educated herself in the refined intellectual environs of Jorasanko and even learnt to ride a horse— on which she cantered everyday to the “Maidan(the modern day Eden Gardens ground) ” in Kolkata.   

Tagore’s friendship with Kadambari Devi flourished in the afternoons, when Jyotirindranth was away from home. Young Rabi read out to Kadambari — thus opening a tentative intellectual exchange that carried Tagore far in life as a liberal humanist in approach to literature and in life.

But by the time, Tagore married Mrinalini Devi — an arranged bride — he had drifted from Kadambari that was rumoured to have caused her considerable distress.  Four months after Rabi’s marriage, Kadambari swallowed an overdose of opium.    
Kakar ends his book at the point where the young Rabi is ready to take on filial responsibilities as a young man- and spread his wings in the world as a landlord and writer.  But grief remained the underpinning of his musings.   

“Kadambari’s early death cast an indelible shadow  on Rabindranath’s psyche that would endure through the rest of his life. The mourning of Kadamabri’s absence snd the summoning of her presence keep recurring in Rabindranath’s poems, song , fictions and later in old age, also in his paintings,” Kakar said.                    
This emptiness lent Tagore the emotional edge — that suffering suffuses creative endeavours with to rise out of the droll and the trivial to scale realms of godly excellence.  


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mughal emperor’s legacy to Hindustan - new conservation model


By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

The illustrious Mughal emperor and arguably one of the most erudite of the Muslim rulers, Humayun, has bequeathed an unusual legacy to the history of the country’s heritage conservation more than 500 years after his death — a holistic restoration mission on a private-public partnership model, the first of its kind in the country paving the way for more sustainable heritage conservation initiatives in the future in concert with private stakeholders.

A restored mausoleum – an architectural splendour in red sandstone and marble — in memory of the 16th century Mughal king, Humayun (son of Babur and the father of Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar) was officially inaugurated by the Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh, his highness Aga Khan, the founder of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the chairman of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Ratan Tata on Sept 18 in New Delhi – the country’s capital. The Humayun’s Tomb dominates the urban skyline of the capital.  

For the historic capital city dating back to the 7th century AD, the restoration was yet another gem in the city’s architectural treasure trove brought on by six years of round-the-clock overhauling by thousands of craftspeople, architects, artists, designers and designers - led by conservation architect Ratish Nanda. The efforts have carted the relic back to its original Islamic self with the revival of many lost Islamic building crafts.

Estimates cite that the work created 200,000 man-days for craftspeople - assembled and trained from the neighbouring Hazrat Nizamuddin urban sprawl that comes under a greater urban heritage renewal mission (around the mausoleum) that seeks to resurrect lost crafts traditions and living cultures of the people in the 14th century habitat — and improve the quality of the life with culture as an enterprise of revitalization, regeneration and profit.

The Humayun’s tomb is one of the largest ensembles of Islamic garden mausoleums in the world hosting more than 30 relics. It is a World Heritage Site, honoured by UNESCO.    

In 1997, on the occasion of India’s 50th anniversary of Independence, his highness Aga Khan, a global cultural philanthropist, gifted the restoration of the gardens of the Humayun’s tomb to India. Work on restoring the sunken garden of the tomb — landscaped on the Islamic notion of “jannat” or heaven as an arcaded green paradise (charbagh) with four mythical rivers flowing into a pool (described in the Quran) began in earnest.

After seven years of work, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004, while addressing the completion of the garden restoration, requested Aga Khan to take over the restoration of the mausoleum with a broad hint that … “more public-private partnerships be evolved to maintain and restore the nation’s heritage”. Three years later, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture returned to the tomb with one its biggest “urban heritage renewal mission” — under its Historic Cities Programme in nine Islamic countries— to conserve the built and living heritage of the Humayun’s Tomb complex. 

An agreement was inked between the Government of India (led by the Archaeological Survey of India and several official agencies) and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for a joint restoration programme that included restoration of 30 mausoleums, creation of a 170-acre green lung at Sundar Nursery (a revenue generating city park in the adjacent Sundarawala Batashewala Burj complex- smaller garden tombs) and significant improvement in the lives of the people.

As work began in 2007, the partnership expanded to include Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Ford Foundation, United States’ Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, World Monument’s Fund and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The restoration of the mausoleums is significant because of two reasons, experts say. Firstly, it is the first public-private partnership heritage project that sets a major precedent for India, whose cultural history dates back to 5,000 years to the early Indus Valley Civilisation – and perhaps even before that in the misty eras of pre-history when the cavemen drew their first figures on the faces of rock shelters at Bhimbetka on the bank of the Narmada river in central India.

It also points to the future – a way that cultural history preservation should follow to make the process sustainable and set up linkages between the past, present and the future. Secondly, it lays bare the sham in the name of conservation by government agencies since the beginning of the 20th century — quick concrete patchwork to contain water seepage as in the case of Humayun’s tomb and to repair crumbling facades.  

Conservation – the sweat-days   

The statistics are staggering, says conservation architect Ratish Nanda, who is overseeing the project in India. 
The process was implemented by a multidisciplinary team made up of landscape and conservation architects, engineers, educators, doctors, public health specialists, horticulturists, administrators, designers and craftspeople – who lent their expertise from within and outside to ensure quality work and healthy environs for the workers and their families in the neighbourhood.

A team of tile-making experts from Uzbekistan trained 12 young men in the lost art of making Islamic glazed tiles – mostly in blue — for four little elegant canopy minarets surrounding the central double dome of the mausoleum on the roof. The tiles are being used to repair the dome of a adjoining public minaret —  Nila Gumbad (blue tomb) — outside the mausoleum. The revival of the craft of ancient tile making – lost to India for nearly 300 years - has generated a source of livelihood for the local artisans.   

Calligraphers were taught to re-craft Islamic inscriptions in Persian and Urdu on the inner facades of the relics while local artisans were instructed in the craft of medieval stonework, masonry and mixing of lime mortar to create a marble finish –the Mughals loved to imitate — using lime wheel with additives like molasses, egg white, fruit pulp and marble dust.

The team of conservators had to remove millions of kilos of concrete from the mausoleum — which was once used as refugee camp to house homeless immigrants from across the border during Partition, Nanda said while walking an international media team around the complex last week. “The craftsmen had to apply 225,000 square feet of lime plaster — mainly to the double dome and to 68 small mausoleums around the ground level (that serves as a foundation base for the tomb), reset 58,000 square feet of sandstone on the terrace and lift the 40,000 square feet of the stone plinth that was buried under layers of thick concrete,” Nanda pointed out.

The restorers had to remove one million kilos of concrete from the roof and from the garden (nearly 40 cm thick layers of concrete) manually to reveal the original built structure of the tomb.

The approach to the restoration was crafts-oriented. The florals patterns were repainted manually and the embellishment cleaned with soft brushes for Islam prohibits “random retouching of sacred works of art”. “We brought 70 truckloads of old stones from the Delhi streets to pave the damaged forecourt. The government ripped the old stone flankings of the streets during the 2010 Commonwealth Games (for new pavings). We used them here,” the conservation architect said.

The restorers are trying to conserve the crafts techniques by encouraging the children of the artisans to train under their fathers Nearly 600 children have learnt the ancient building crafts from their fathers, who have been trained by experts for the project, in holiday exercises.

Along with the Humayun’s Tomb, the team has restored 30 smaller cluster tombs — like the Nila Gumbad, Isa Khan’s Garden Tomb, Bu Halima ( a nursemaid and foster mother)’s garden tomb, Arab Serai Gateways, Sundarawala Mahal, Lakkarwala Burj, Batashewala monuments, Chausath Khamba and the ancient Nizamuddin Baoli (well).            

Dormitory of Islam

The Humayun’s tomb commissioned by Emperor Akbar in 1560s was said to have been built around 1569-70s. It was later assigned to the emperor’s widow Haji Begum for upkeep, experts at the site say, quoting historians. Lores say emperor Akbar visited the mausoleum five times – twice by boat.

“It is one of the first grand dynastic mausoleum that the Mughals built. For many years it has been the Mughal pilgrimage site,” Ratish Nanda says. It is said to be the precursor to the Indo-Islamic marvel Taj Mahal and a blueprint for the tomb at Sikandra— Akbar’s mausoleum near Agra— as well. As many as 160 members of the ruling Mughal clan lie buried in the mausoleum complex next to each other. While the emperor’s marble cenotaph is the centre-piece of the grave ensemble at the tomb, the smaller cenotaphs fan out in a radial design in separate smaller enclosures in a traditional nine-fold architectural plan. An ethnic brass lamp – brought from a historical artifacts’ workshop in Cairo recently –overhangs the emperor’s relic.

The site of the tomb is considered holy because it located barely a km from the shrine of the 14th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya at the Hazrat Nizamuddin sprawl. 

The architecture of the tomb is essentially Persian, with three gateways, around the tomb. The interiors are spartan- beautiful in its white minimalism — with a hint of floral inlay around the domed roof. Arches break the monotony the endless tomb enclosures and wide open spaces open out to the skyline of the capital and the frail stream of the Yamuna river beyond.  

Humayun, who succeeded Babur, in 1508 AD (and died in 1556 AD) was a frail and mild-mannered empire builder, who was exiled by rival Sher Shah Suri to Iran for 15 years. A year before his death, he returned to India and wrested Delhi from the Suri rulers. Humayun fell to his death from the stairs of his personal library at the Purana Qila (old fort) while trying to face Mecca at prayer.             

Holistic conservation

The Urban Heritage Renewal mission with the restoration of the Humayun’s Tomb at the heart of the initiative has so far benefited 20,000 residents of the neighbouring Hazrat Nizamuddin sprawl with better healthcare, education, homes, sanitation and employment opportunities. But overshadowing the improvement of lifestyles, is the reality of the revival of ancient living cultures thriving for over seven centuries. The renewal mission has given a fresh lease of life to traditional cultures like Islamic music (through live concerts), performance traditions, an ancient paper cutting art, calligraphy, solid crafts traditions and Islamic horticultural practises. The flora and fauna of ancient Delhi has been “brought to life” at the Sundar Nursery open greenhouse outlying the mausoleum.       

“We have 20 major (holistic) heritage renewal missions in nine cities, but this is the largest site. The central premise is that cultural enrichment and historical restoration can be a springboard for social progress. The importance of such projects can increase by diversifying economy… We have been encouraged by the impact of the project on the lives of the inhabitants in the Nizamuddin area,” Aga Khan said.

The philanthropist believes that “the ethic of partnership should be the crux of any project of this sort. Private-public partnership is the essential keystone for development, he observed. “A creative mix of participants is needed…,” Aga Khan said. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has embarked on another private-public restoration initiative at the Qutab Quli Shah’s tomb in Hyderabad which is tentatively on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

PPP- Way Ahead?

India one of the richest repository of cultural heritage –living, built and intangible— can conserve its cultural treasure chest only if helped by private players who can work in synergy with government agencies, suggests Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (An official estimate says the Archaeological Survey of India – the apex government conservation agency — manages nearly 3,650 relics).

Prime Minister Singh advocates a “holistic approach to conservation that will combine conservation with the social and economic needs of the communities around the heritage sites”. The Archaeological Survey of India is drafting a National Conservation Policy around holistic and integrated mixed models of conservation that will link restoration of monuments to revival of adjoining communities in a participatory way with several stakeholders. The government is campaigning to foster sense of ownership of cultural heritage countrywide.

Private participation in conservation of heritage serves two purposes, argue experts. It brings in more resources, creates a platform for greater exchanges of know-hows, ideas, pushes pace of work, ensures value for money and finally makes cultural conservation a profitable enterprise encouraging proactive community involvement.
Veteran Indian journalist, Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of Indian Express, says the best way to conserve India’s cultural heritage is to liberate it from the government. “This (government control) explains the state of India’s heritage… How many governments have bureaucrats running the ministry of culture,” he points out.

Private-public partnership is the perhaps the most pragmatic way ahead – to strike the right balance between institutions and cultural democracy.                 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

At affordable price, Indian contemporary art in a mass showcase in Delhi


Art at United Art Fair 

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Art in India has been relentlessly striving to break through the ivory walls of its elitist chamber to reach the masses in the last decade – especially since the money market crash of 2008 when the art market bubble burst in inflated price fiascos brought about by unscrupulous investors and galleries leading to a violent purge of inferior art from the market and stringent price corrections.

The price correction in the art market is still holding strong even five after the global economic meltdown — and now as India battles a fresh wave of slowdown in market,  the movers and shakers of the art market are finding new ways to make aesthetics affordable to the mass market. The United Art Fair– an artist to buyers’ showcase  — is one such initiative launched by an enterprising businessman Anurag  Sharma last year (2012) to provide young contemporary artists from across the country and even abroad a platform to reach out to people and buyers directly without the intervention of galleries.

The independent fair – modeled loosely on the Affordable Art Fair (New York) — at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi Sept 15-17 with more than 2,500 art works by nearly 270 artists — brought buyers, investors and collectors to transact their picks directly from the artists. “Buy. Buy and Buy” was the refrain at the fair to revive the Indian art market (estimated at Rs 2,000 crore annually) that threatens to slump again.     

Curated by five Indian experts in the world of art — gallerist Peter Nagy, graphic designer Ram Rahman, art historian Alka Pande, art critic and curator Meera Menezes, India-based American arts curator and activists Heidi Fichtner and writer-curator Mayank Kaul — the fair brought  a bohemian collection of creatively refreshing contemporary art, backed by a powerful retro-section of curated photographic displays by iconic Indian lens-people and works by older artist to add heft to the showcase. The exhibit varied across segments — paintings, prints, photographs, sketches,  multi-media work, new media work, new age solid art, installations, sculptures and ethnic art.     

The “affordable” price tag swung a wide arc between Rs 10,000 to  Rs 300,000 with the bulk of the work priced between Rs 40,000 to Rs 100,000. The business model was simple — it was a 50-50 (percentage) between the organizers and artists. The artist donated one work to the fair which sold it to cover the costs.     

“It is not going through the gallery, it is going directly to the artist. The artist has given one work as a commission. The collection on display (this year) is quite varied to suit different sensibilities and tastes for art. Each curator was assigned to choose works of his choice keeping the principles of meaningful art, relevance and identifiable aesthetics in mind. I personally curated a large photographic section with historical photographs- some of which have not been seen in 50-60 years— together with several young photographers,” co-curator Ram Rahman told this writer at the fair Sept 14— when it opened doors to the media and VIPs for sneak preview walk.     

The rounds of wine and “hors d’ oeuvres” were interspersed with guided tours of the fair by the curators.  The fair was laid out in two categories — open display space and solo booths for senior artists. The fair combined a culture capsule as well to celebrate “everything Punjabi” on music stage right in the middle of the exhibition space.

“I concentrated on the photography. Some of Ram Rahman’s curations were very impressive … And Manu Parekh’s old works,” Jawahar Sircar, CEO of Indian Public Broadcaster Prasar Bharati, told this writer, as he surveyed the exhibition space. Sircar, the former secretary in the ministry of culture, is a self-taught art connoisseur and critic.

The cue from Sircar led to vintage photographs  — more than 100 of them in photo essays by heavyweights like Ram Dhamija, Raja Deen Dayal, O.P. Sharma, unseen photographs by Liesl De Souza, Italian photographer Tina Modotti’s cache of chronicler’s images of Ghadar Party leader Pandurang Khankhoje’s life in Mexico as farm revolutionary  and a cinema tribute in portraits by old Mumbai photographer J.H. Thakker (to mark 100 years of Indian cinema) .  

A separate still photo-narrative of nine frames by filmmaker Dev Benegal shot during the making of the movie, “Road”. The travelling truck photographs depict the anatomy of mass cinema and the forces that drive the industry — the multiplex, old cinema hoardings, shooting space, cinema awareness on the roads and how the family decides on the kind of cinema to make.  The country’s demographic rainbow came alive in Mumbai lensman Nishant Shukla’s photo-essay and collage, “Brief Encounters”- individual shots of commuters on three train journeys across India, like an overview of a multi-cultural nation on the move.            

A photo-narrative, “Ways of the Road” by French photographer Fabien Charuau, captured a “bus route” in the remote Partapur village in Rajasthan by shooting three random images at every kilometer of the road to depict its people, life and the environs. The paneled essay is like a probe into the dilapidated heart of the state- where development has failed to make inroads, leaving it empty and forlorn.  

The fair was a startling contrast of brilliance and mediocrity.  While a unseen photo-essay in black-white like a collage of legendary Bharatnatyam dancer Balasaraswati in different “mudras (poses)” looked like a motion picture, a section on acrylic art by young artists raised serious doubt about curation of paintings in emerging artists’ section with their “callous derivatives from works by masters” and garish use of flat colours in the photo-realistic styles. 

In a departure, a selection of folk inspired art in mixed media — with extensive use of textiles and thread work — brought out the densely layered heritage of Indian contemporary in a very comforting indigenous idiom.  A group of Indian artists has been experimenting with fabrics and the rich diversity of traditional needle craft in combination with conventional mediums to create new stories that connect the history of country’s craft techniques with modern art and universal contents.

Young Indian contemporary art has been grappling with a curious set of circumstances — while it has become global over the years with more exhibitions and international residencies developing an universality in content and creative mental kinetics, it has lost touch with roots with mindless “derivative practices” culled from western masters and movements. This has led to a monotony in expression on the coloured canvas and in the new mediums, which was felt at the fair. Senior artists advocate return to the indigenous roots to evolve distinctive a language with references of social realities.

Some of new works were disappointing— almost bad, lashed out independent critic, curator and writer Georgina Maddox.     

Experiences were dime a dozen.  “In course of my search, I discovered an old installation of a car behind my home one day — made by an artist in the neighbourhood,” co-curator Ram Rahman said. The installation “Self-Defence” by Badal Chitrakar ( an ethnic artist) is telling comment on the need for personal safety in troubled times and at the time, on the conflicts around. 

The installation pushes new frontier of creativity — a Maruti 100 car modified to resemble an armoured vehicle with a combat aircraft mounted on it — and soldier sitting inside the car.  It was complimented  by a contemporary photo-essay in small frames by Chandan Gomes about the “growing atrocities on women in New Delhi and around the country and their victims made famous by the media”.

“While I was travelling with a friend on a Delhi bus to a get-together one evening, around the same time, a young woman was being gang-raped not far from the where I was travelling…,” the photographer spun in his caption. True or false… there was no time to introspect. The effect was sobering.        

Folk art was an important component of the fair. A separate section presented by the Delhi Crafts Council hosted a motley ethnic group — represented by Ambika Devi with drawings from Mithila, Soni Jogi with dot painting,  Raju Kalbelia with embroidery on Malkha Khadi, Chakradhar Lal with Madhubani paintings on paper,  Odisha tree painting by Kailash Chandra Meher, Nirmala Marandi with kathwa appliqué.  Tribal art in India – the point of origin of Indian aesthetics in pre-historic times with ancient paintings in caves and rock faces — have travelled a strange route down the epochs to tailor to new ethos by conveying contemporary artistic messages with ancient practices and motifs, registering minimal changes in stylization but complete makeovers in thinking. Ethnic art in India is now a fashion statement among collectors – fetching respectable prices in the mainstream markets.  

“Six months ago, we were approached by a Delhi-based gallery owner Peter Nagy ( a co-curator of the United Art Fair) , to create a collection of traditional and tribal folk art for the United Art Fair. We worked with eight artists to create over fifty pieces especially for the fair. We have supported the craftspeople with material, equipment, financial assistance and space to work,” Pratiksha Somaia, general secretary of the Delhi Crafts Council told this writer.   

One of the key aspects of the fair was the participation of foreign artists from US, UK, Japan, Israel and Switzerland — most of whom were inspired by Indian creative expressions and traditions to craft cross-cultural expressions of art.  American artist Katherine Virgils was one such artist- who used motifs from Rajput and Pahadi miniatures to create a fable in collage essay, “Miniatures with Monkeys and Parrots”.     

“In comparison to Switzerland, where we have Art Basel, one of the biggest international art showcases, this is an artist-driven fair- and a good one. Modern Indian art share many similarities with contemporary Swiss art with so many styles, elements of kitsch… I have been enjoying my interactions and exchange with Indian artists,” Swiss artist Augustine Rebetez, who exhibited give photographs and prints at the fair, observed.  Rebetez was one of the artists sponsored by the Swiss Arts Council to the fair in India.

It is about giving young artists the exposure and bringing new creativity to the mainstream, pointed out Alka Pande, one of the five curators of the fair. “There is something for everyone here. While curating, I kept Indian aesthetics, rasa (emotional sensuousness), saundarya (beauty) and the country’s plurality in mind,” Pande said.

For artists, it was a relief from the stranglehold of galleries, which charge anything between 33 per cent to 50 per cent as commission from artist — and are known impose their writ on artists and deprive them of fair “deals”.  “Such platforms should be encouraged,” artist Moutushi Chakraborty, who exhibited drawings and prints on gender tussle, commented on the space.

It is an interesting model, founder-director of the India Art Fair Neha Kirpal said. “It encourages a whole new layer of local artists — it is a complimenting parallel model to the India Art Fair, which is the country’s biggest international gallery-based fair,” Kirpal pointed out.

A mixed bag — 50 leading artists have been left out, lamented a New Delhi-based curator.